The closing down of the Metropolis winter festival held at Nehru children’s park in early January by Assam’s powerful minister Himanta Biswa Sarma showed a certain misunderstanding of what Assam’s youth deems as culture. Indeed it was an apparent conflict between popular perception of new age cultures of spectacle and what is taken to be the perennial values of Assamese culture. The reason stated was that holding the fest in such a park was appropriate as the organisers believed that children would take part in large numbers to enjoy the variety of dance forms brought to them by the Thimpubased Royal Academy of Performing Arts, a noted cultural outfit of South Asia. But it was alleged that atmosphere in the festival was spoilt by liquor, gambling and indecent exposure, which was the reason for the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority shutting down the fest on its last day. It is extremely rapacious to see this kind of state-sponsored crackdown on a cultural event,which was sponsored by the tourism department as well as the GMDA itself.
Biswa Sarma tweeted,“Why GMDA allowed Nehru park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to thechildren. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated. (sic)” When a large number of young dancers and performing artists in their costume and colourful attire were gathering in the festival, there was no reason to think that it vitiates atmosphere for the children, as the latter were equally attracted to various animations and other shows. It is now believed that the fest had the blessings of the former chief minister, Tarun Gogoi and his son, Gaurav Gogoi, member of parliament and hence it was subjected to such a crackdown.
Miguel Dash Queah, a child rights activist, who held sessions on corporal punishment in schools had expressed his resentment with the act of shutting down, arguing that the fest was a rallying point for both youth and children involving hundreds of vibrant scholars, musicians, artists, photographers, dancers, designers, social workers, couples and activists who are star attractions in their respective fields of work. This secular, modern and new age gathering of ideas and performances created a new sense of urbanity, lifestyle and free mixing but was dubbed immoral,illegal and illegitimate by the culture brigade.
Just to erase this huge act of repression, the Assam government inaugurated the Brahmaputra Literary Festival on 24 January, which saw the presence of a large number of authors, poets and thinkers, but this time blessed by chief minister, Sarbanada Sonowal and Biswa Sarma. Like the winter fest, a large number of scholars, activists, artists gathered attracting the youth and children alike, but this time, it had the sanction of the authorities and hence no moral policing and no culture brigands attacked it.
Again just the other day, Ahom’s festival,Mei-dam-mephiwas organised with gaiety and colour adorned by Biswa Sarma sharing the stage with veteran Ahom Tarun Gogoi. Such is the power of culture that it can bring together apparent rivals and make them exchange pleasantries.
Indeed Assam’s rich cultural heritage, marked by immense tolerance,fellow-feeling,mutual participation and appreciation, makes it possible to shun political difference over matters of culture. Unfortunately, in shutting down the winter fest, such a spirit was tarnished by apparent political difference that led to an ugly crackdown.
The recent celebration of the Rabha dance troop visiting Bhopal and performing Rabha, Bihu, Tiwa and bamboo dances under the auspices of “Lokrang Samaroh” of Madhya Pradesh government is taken to be a boost for traditional dance forms. Similarly, popular new age Assamese songs like Hul kata mere Sali , Disco bhonti, Taxi gariand a lyrical line like Supi khabo de,supi khabo de,tur bukure morom khini supi khabo de are played at every public place but doesn’t evoke much of a reaction from the authorities.
Occasional crackdown at parks, hookah bars, discotheques and river sides are equated with a culture of obscenity by the moral police that can be activated anytime. Saraswati Puja also becomes an occasion for a kind of carnival of mass dating and romance that often results in mishaps and loss of life.
Similarly Assamese film makers Himangshu Prasad Das’s Shakira Ahibo Bokultolor Bihuloi(Shakira will come to Bakultola Bihu premises) being forcibly removed by owners of theatre halls is seen as an affront to the facilitation of Asomiya cinema. In its script, the movie brings out the paradox of governmentality, as the government fails to repair broken embankments along the Brahmaputra and lakhs of people annually get displaced by floods. The film goes on to show that in such a situation, the news that Shakira, the Colombian pop star, will visit a Bihu function brings thousands of people and it is announced that remits from the function will go towards helping the flood victims. But on the day of the function, instead of Shakira, the organisers present Shakira Khatun, who is a flood victim and lost her mental composure after losing her son in the floods. The film remains a social irony that critiques, both the public and the government, as neither are ready to support the work of repair of embankment but the same public pours in money for a Bihu function supposed to be graced by Shakira.
Here again, the theatre owners of Guwahati received instructions to accommodate Raees and Kaabil at the time slot meant for local Assamese movie and they started removing Das’s Shakira from the theatre halls. Das wrote a protest note addressing it to ULFA chief Paresh Barua,whose outfit had earlier declared a ban on Hindi films.
Barua, in his letter supporting Das’ movie, warned Assam’s theatre owners of dire consequences if they removed Shakirato accommodate Kaabil and Raees.
This also brings out the picture of a severe contestation among the stakeholders of culture, who do not hesitate to use power, directly or indirectly, to influence cultural choices. Apart from use of force, persuasion, insinuation, direct and indirect blame-game and logic of commercial success and failure, these people who all are willy-nilly attached to culture and cultural identity, use their positions of power to tilt a decision in favour or against cultural items,objects,shows or performances.
Assam’s cultural map is increasingly getting problematised by a negative reception of cultural productions such as music, film, art et al in a manner that it affects the congenial atmosphere of the cultural milieu itself. Another very significant facet of this war of positions on culture is measurement of popular sentiments.
As much of Assam’s culture retains its ethnic and traditional roots, rituals, worldviews and heritage is still lived by the people by their attachment to places, monuments, memories and other such intangibles. In a situation of increased contest, claims and counter-claims, there is also a tendency to trivialise. It is worthwhile to mention that some outfits, apparently inspired by Hindutva ideology performed pujason Ahom king’s remains, which are kept in typical ahom architectural monuments called moidam and washed the floor with tons of milk and observed Hindu rituals that are meant for commemorating dead ancestors. The Ahom community strongly responded to such ritual appropriation of their legacy by stating that Ahom rites are totally different from Hindu ones. In a similar vein, a recent court case filed by the All Bodo Students’ Union on Koch Rajbongshis wearing their Dokhona (women’s attire) and naming it differently as Patani has created a sense of contest and appropriation.
Within this overlapping and yet different names, claims and ideas of cultural practice, artifacts and values, the arrival of new age modernity has further cleaved the field of culture into a broad divide between conservatism and opening up to new trendy items. The presence of the political forces who are motivated by a logic of power to keep measuring popular sentiments and accordingly carve out an extra-cultural logic either to defend or to spoil any cultural item that does not support their agenda.This is potentially dangerous, as it creates multiple conflicts not just between connoisseurs and practitioners,but also between government and cultural groups to further deepen Assam’s fractured cultural mosaic.
Prasenjit Biswas is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Nehu, Shillong, and Suraj Gogoi is a researcher in Sociology at the National University of Singapore